After I left religion, it didn’t take long for me to realize that evil was good. Oops. Did I just write that out loud? I imagine some of my atheist readers are scratching their heads, wondering if I’ve finally gone bonkers, catapulted into sheer madness, perhaps by the very lively conversation that followed last week’s blog post. And way over yonder in the virtual distance, I can pick up a nearly audible victory hiss from another segment of my readership. “I knew she was a devil worshipper!” they whisper, consoled by their newfound explanation for my blog (which they are mysteriously drawn to.) Yes, I publicly admit that evil can be good. But wait. Let me explain.
When I made the life-changing decision to leave religion, it was not just a “rip off the Band-Aid moment,” a clean goodbye. Religion had infiltrated my social life, my feelings of self-worth, my relationship with society and, surprisingly, even my language. In two earlier blog posts, Language and Gratitude, I discuss the complexities of replacing “Christianese” with words and phrases that support truth. Both articles touched on positive and uplifting terms, such as thank God, or have faith, phrases that seemed well-meaning, but no longer reflected the exact messages I wished to convey.
During this revamping of my language, I realized that there was another dimension to the issue, a separate set of terms and phrases I would have to be willing to scratch from my repertoire as a self-respecting skeptic. These weren’t the terms rooted in “godliness,” (which I found I was able to replace with relative ease). These words were from the dark side.
I was happy to get rid of the word sin. Even during my time as a Christian, that word felt like nails on a chalkboard, or ketchup on a hotdog. (Hey. I’m from Chicago.) Hell was another biggie, and slightly more complicated to surrender. I guess I was always rational enough to know, deep down, that hell didn’t exist. However, the concept of hell came in handy. Surely there had to be some sort of punishment in store for the rapists, the murderers, the abusers that got away with their cruel acts here on Earth. There had to be hell to pay, even if it boiled down to mere emotional torment at the moment of death. Hell is the word you pull out when you need a snarling bulldog to scare away your deepest fears. “Don’t worry,” the big old bulldog snarls, “They’ll pay for what they did.”
And then somehow, you get up the next morning. Even though children were shot.
But the toughest word to let go of, the one I admittedly struggled with, was the mac daddy of all religious words, the pinnacle on which every religion is gently and precariously cradled…the word evil. Because yes, evil is everything terrible. It is the deliciously creepy term that encompasses everything from the fabled fall of man, to the villains in Disney movies, to the very real horrors that haunt our waking hours and disturb our dreams. It embraces even the mythical notions of eternal hellfire, or the cold, black waters of the River Styx. Evil is bad, bad, bad.
But when I had evil in my world, I had a neat little box wherein I could file those horrible things. Child rapists wouldn’t possibly exist if it weren’t for evil. Kidnappings and abuse, exploitation of minors, modern day slavery… things I could barely stand to think about were stamped, sealed, and tucked into that box, where they could be dealt with later, by someone else. The lump in my throat was gone, and I could breathe because I could face this beast called evil. I could understand it. I could fight against it, with the supernatural powers of good. I could dismiss it. I could rest assured that there would be hell to pay. I didn’t have to bear the burden of advocating for change. I didn’t have to own up to collective mistakes made, or opportunities missed, because nothing was my fault. I was on the side of good. I was a chosen one. No matter what I did, evil would always exist in the world. It would always be there to help me make sense of the unimaginable, without any personal investment in change. In that way, evil was very, very good.
The word has circulated relentlessly since the massacre at Stoneman Douglas. Some define evil as “bad, wrong, vile, depraved.” I can see how the term, when used with that secular definition, is a good descriptor of the recent tragedy. However, I have proposed abandoning this term because unfortunately, its broader use encompasses a spiritual definition and one that comes with a heavy price. When religion permeates the definition of a word that later evolves to label a social issue, an individual, or a societal concern with the purpose of “condemning” “explaining away,” boxing in,” or “punishing accordingly,” definitions do matter. Historically, the Christian use of the term evil implies the involvement of a dark, spiritual concern that no remedy beyond a divine one can possibly address. It would make sense that believers in the supernatural would choose supernatural intervention (read: prayer) over action if the assumption is they are up against evil. It just wouldn’t make sense to battle Leviathan with legislation.
Before you say, “It’s just a word. What does it matter?” Let’s take a quick glimpse into the dark underworld of semantics.
For a period of about 200 years, women went untreated for conditions as severe as epilepsy and schizophrenia because almost any unusual symptom (in women only) was attributed to the general term hysteria.
The word sinister is derived from the Latin term for “left.” Due to several passages in the Bible that speak negatively about the left side, lefties have been persecuted throughout history, suffering everything from forced “conversion,” to burning, and even execution.
In the Bible, blindness, muteness, lameness and bodily deformity, as well as psychological issues were attributed to demons. What’s more surprising is that many people still believe in demonic possession and prefer to treat conditions that clearly require medical intervention, with “supernatural weapons” of prayer and fasting. Autism is still being treated by exorcism, even here in the United States.
In the same way, when we sweep perpetrators, tragedies, political issues, and psychotic disorders under this superstitious and fantastical umbrella of evil, we are denying treatment, prevention, action, and awareness to those who need it. If you manage to forget everything else I’ve talked about today, please keep that sentence in your mind. I made it extra-long not to torture you, but because I still love commas.
My secondary reason for opting against the term evil is that it can be twisted and shaped to meet the depraved definition of anyone who chooses to use it. For example, Hitler (who many would see as the embodiment of evil) used the term to his advantage when he labeled Jews “evil” and the “personification of the devil.” It’s not a precise term with a concrete definition. It enables the speaker to manipulate and persuade populations, at times with devastating results.
The first step towards acting responsibly is embracing truth. When we muddle truth, using terminology heavily-laden with superstition, antiquated and disproven assumptions, we relinquish our greatest weapon of self-defense: knowledge.
In closing, I’d like to thank all of my readers for their contributions to last week’s conversation. I know that each of us reacts to and expresses grief in unique ways. I admit I was feistier than usual when I posted my message on guns, but I needed to “say some stuff,” so I did. Despite some polarized opinions in the comments, I found them quite entertaining. I look forward to your thoughts on evil.